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J. Phys. A: Math. Theor. 41 (2008) 164033 (9pp) doi:10.1088/1751-8113/41/16/164033

Membrane actuation by Casimir force manipulation

Fabrizio Pinto
InterStellar Technologies Corporation, 115 North Fifth Avenue, Monrovia, CA 91016, USA

E-mail: fabrizio.pinto@interstellartechcorp.com

Received 28 October 2007, in final form 29 January 2008

Published 9 April 2008
Online at stacks.iop.org/JPhysA/41/164033

In our laboratory, we have been developing a practical demonstration of
actuation by means of the Casimir force inspired by the capacitive detection
approach originally described by Arnold, Hunklinger and Dransfeld (1972
Rev. Sci. Instrum. 43 584–7). In this paper, we first describe the mathematical
challenges pertaining to the electrostatic calibration of our measuring device,
which has been enhanced by our recently published results regarding the
computation of electrostatic fields in axial systems, such as the long-standing
classical circular capacitor problem. We also discuss our computational
approach to the calculation of the Casimir force in our system, including our
adoption of analytical descriptions of the dielectric functions of semiconductors
extended to the case of axial geometries. We will illustrate how the original
AHD apparatus has been drastically improved upon, for instance by means
of modern nanopositioner technology, and we shall discuss our published
experimental results on the dynamics of a vibrating membrane with a central
disc, which have provided the first direct verification of the mechanical
resonances of such a system. The emphasis of our effort is not exclusively
directed to fundamental physics research but is focused on, and ultimately
motivated by, our goal of identifying viable industrial applications leading to
commercially marketable products based on Casimir force actuation. Therefore
we conclude this paper by briefly discussing the contribution we believe these
results will offer to some current technological problems, in particular in
nanotechnology, including some thoughts on the possibility that dispersion
forces may enable a new and rapidly expanding industry to develop in the near

PACS numbers: 34.20.Cf, 43.38.Kb, 46.70.Hg, 41.20.Cv, 02.70.Bf

1. Introduction

The dependence on illumination of van der Waals forces in semiconductors was first reported
by Arnold, Hunklinger and Dransfeld (AHD hereinafter) [2], who made use of a dynamic
1751-8113/08/164033+09$30.00 © 2008 IOP Publishing Ltd Printed in the UK 1
J. Phys. A: Math. Theor. 41 (2008) 164033 F Pinto

detection technique novel to that application [1, 3]. Although those early efforts were only
partially conclusive, they presented for the first time the intriguing possibility to alter dispersion
forces between boundaries, for instance by means of radiation. Such a development was very
significant since van der Waals forces have been traditionally treated as a fabrication and
performance limitation and not as an engineering resource [4–13].
In this paper, we report about the recent progress of a project to demonstrate the actuation
of a macroscopic membrane by means of time-dependent dispersion forces carried out in
our laboratory by significantly expanding on the AHD experiment. The original approach of
those authors consisted of a strategy generally familiar from the dynamical measurement of
contact potentials [14–18]. In the AHD case, a small dielectric disc cemented to the center
of the membrane of a condenser microphone interacted with a convex ‘lens’ placed at a
submicrometer distance from the disc itself. The lens was attached to the diaphragm of an
ordinary speaker that was driven into vibration by an external, time-dependent voltage source.
The resulting time-dependent gap width between the lens and the small disc caused the van der
Waals force between the two boundaries to become periodic thus forcing the membrane into
vibration. By modulating the dispersion force between the two elements at the fundamental
resonant frequency of the membrane-disc system under a moderate vacuum, the resulting
displacement caused a measurable electric signal. Finally, this electromechanical response
could yield the magnitude of the van der Waals force provided the system had been previously
calibrated by means of electrostatic forces of known intensity [1, 3].
In a very important development, those authors later investigated the effect of illumination
on the van der Waals force between semiconductors. This was achieved by depositing a thin
layer of amorphous silicon on a small, central region of the lens facing the disc assembled
on the membrane. By back-illuminating the silicon deposition with white light of constant
intensity, the technique described above demonstrated for the first time that the magnitude
of the van der Waals force in semiconductors depends on the charge carrier number density.
However, agreement with the predictions of the Casimir–Lifshitz theory of dispersion forces
[19–23] was not entirely satisfactory [2]. Importantly, a new perspective on the results
of the AHD experiment has been provided by the recent investigations of the van der
Waals force involving semiconductors conducted with sophisticated atomic force microscope
(AFM) techniques, which also resulted in an unsatisfactory agreement with the Lifshitz theory

2. Motivations for the present study

The intriguing discrepancies just described provide a first motivation to attempt to gain a much-
improved characterization of the electromechanical response of the type of sensor employed
in the AHD experiment. A second research subtopic has been the search for a realistic
experiment centered on dispersion forces to differentiate between the apparently equivalent
predictions of stochastic- (SED) and quantum-electro-dynamics (QED) [27–31]. Finally, and
most importantly to our effort, is the compelling need to explore the technological connection
between dispersion force manipulation and nanoactuation. This stems from the fact that
all demonstrations of micro-electro-mechanical-system (MEMS) actuation by means of the
Casimir force have so far transferred mechanical energy to the microdevice by physically
altering the interboundary Casimir gap width by means of an external mechanical actuator—
similarly to the original AHD experiment described above. Although this is an interesting
achievement, it does not represent the stand-alone actuation of a microstructure, which is
the critical goal needed to design useful products based on dispersion forces. However, the
transfer of energy to a MEMS can be achieved by designing ordinary thermodynamical
J. Phys. A: Math. Theor. 41 (2008) 164033 F Pinto

engine cycles based on dispersion force manipulation, as first shown by the present
author [30].
The above research directions demand that a drastic improvement on the accuracy of
previous numerical computations of the Lifshitz integral in semiconductors be achieved
[32, 33] while at the same time enhancing their flexibility. For this purpose, we employed,
also for the first time, a highly accurate Kramers–Kronig consistent, five-oscillator critical
point (CP) model of the band spectrum of silicon [30, 34, 35]. As clearly stated by Etchegoin
et al in their work on the optical properties of gold [36]: ‘One could argue that an analytical
model for (ω) is not really necessary, and that it is always possible to resort to interpolations
of the experimental data. However, the advantages of having a realistic analytic representation
of (ω) with a small number of physically meaningful parameters are self-evident, not only
for simulations but also to understand situations where the intrinsic parameters of the metal
might be modified by external perturbations.’
These comments are especially relevant in light of the well-known ‘frustrating
uncertainties’ [37] in the numerical details of (iξ ) generation from optical data available
in various data banks and software repositories [38] as well as non-standardized sample
preparation and experimental methodology [36, 39, 40]. In particular, parametric approaches
to dispersion force calculation promise to be quite effective to investigate our early result that
the Casimir–Lifshitz theory may need refining on thermodynamical considerations [30], the
above puzzling discrepancies revealed by the AFM measurements [26], as well as to address
various industrial applications under development in our laboratory.

3. Logical importance of the electrostatic calibration procedure

At the foundation of any conclusion regarding the behavior of dispersion forces in real materials
there necessarily lies an accurate characterization of the response of the sensing device to other
forces which must be independently known. Quite typically, one employs electrostatic test
forces whose behavior is obtained from ‘textbook results.’ It is therefore important to reflect
on the fact that the quality of our present understanding of dispersion forces, including the
existence of the above possible disagreements between theory and experiments, comes to
logically rest upon the assumption that a few ‘elementary electrostatics’ results can indeed
accurately model the systems to which they are applied. For instance, since earlier experiments,
the relative determination of the distance between two conducting objects has relied upon
analytical equations for the capacitance [41]. However, attempts to electrostatically calibrate
a MEMS device employed to detect the effects of variable optical properties on the Casimir
force were reported to have been ‘not successful’ as the results were ‘not reproducible’
In the case of the AHD experiment, calibration was summarily described as having
being carried out by replacing the lens assembled on the loudspeaker by a ‘small metal
plate’ and by establishing a periodic potential between it and the microphone membrane
[1, 3]. By assuming that the force between the two conductors can be found, presumably
from the elementary equations for a circular capacitor partially filled with a dielectric, the
electrostatic force acting on the membrane was obtained (the interboundary distance was
measured interferometrically and not electrostatically). However, this procedure, familiar
in acoustics, is well known to only yield reliable results as a secondary calibration, mainly
because of difficulties to accurately measure the distance between the electrostatic actuator
and the microphone membrane. In addition, the entire process typically neglects fringing
effects and it assumes that the electrostatic pressure is a constant everywhere on the membrane
J. Phys. A: Math. Theor. 41 (2008) 164033 F Pinto

At the present time, we are investigating whether such uncritical reliance on elementary
electrostatics results to calibrate Casimir force experimental devices is appropriate by
exploring, both numerically and experimentally, some geometries relevant to dispersion
force research. Some advancements made in formulating the problem of electrostatic field
computation in axisymmetric geometries in the presence of both conductors and dielectrics
have recently been reported and an error in the literature has been recently identified
In principle, once the test force acting on the sensing element is computed, it is possible
to model the electromechanical response of the system. However, this step as well assumes
that the dynamical response to either the test force or the dispersion force be well understood.
For instance, the non-trivial frequency response of a membrane-disc system of the type used
in the AHD experiment, even if driven by an axisymmetric electrostatic excitation, has only
recently been explored for the first time by the present author [54].

4. Potential in realistic actuator-microphone systems

In order to explore the applicability to laboratory situations of the elementary equations

typically used in the calibration of dispersion force experiments, we started from an
investigation of the classical circular capacitor problem, which has a very long history [53, 55–
59]. Initially, we carried out successive overrelaxation (SOR) computations of the capacitance
of two identical plates symmetrically placed within a grounded conducting enclosure by means
of finite-difference schemes in axisymmetric geometries [53] and we compared our results to
the predictions of both the elementary equation for capacitance and those from the so-called
Kirchhoff approximation [60, 61].
This geometry was then further complicated by adding a small dielectric disc in the center
of one of the two conducting plates. This case is extremely rarely treated in the literature even
numerically because, in order to reduce fringing, any dielectric material in the gap is usually
allowed to extend well beyond the outer circumference of the capacitor [53]. In the case of a
dielectric disc partially filling the gap, any elementary analytical approximations were found
to be unsatisfactory when compared with the SOR results both for relatively small and large
Finally, the above predictions were experimentally verified by measuring the mutual
capacitance of pairs of aluminum mirrors assembled on computer-controlled actuators and
placed within a grounded cavity. These measurements were then repeated after epoxing a
small disc of fused silica (High Purity Fused Silica Corning 7980 of UV grade) to one of the
two optical flats within the grounded enclosure. The results, to be reported in detail elsewhere,
have conclusively shown that, even in the absence of dielectrics, the Kirchhoff approximation
can at most serve as a useful guide to obtain an initial best-fit of the behavior of the capacitance
by means of numerical models.
In the following step of this project, these relatively idealized geometries were relaxed and
the potential field of a realistic microphone modified with a dielectric disc and in proximity
of an electrostatic actuator was computed. These results allow us to obtain the electrostatic
pressure acting on the disc-membrane system, which is a critical dynamical variable needed to
compute the calibrated electromechanical response of the microphone [63, 62]. As is clearly
visible in a typical result (figure 1), the pressure across the annular area surrounding the disc
is not constant and, although this problem can be reduced, it cannot be eliminated since of
course the gap cannot be made smaller than the thickness of the dielectric disc.

J. Phys. A: Math. Theor. 41 (2008) 164033 F Pinto



1010 RD
0 925 950 975 1000 1025 1050 1075 1100
-1 -2 -3 -4 -5
RM z Pes (r)

Figure 1. A condenser microphone (ACO Pacific model 7013) with membrane radius RM =
0.495 cm modified by cementing a disc of fused silica (r = 3.78) with radius RD = 0.125 cm
in its center (left); a sample SOR computation (RD = 0.25 cm for clarity) of the equipotential
curves for a microphone-actuator gap s = 0.5 cm showing the fringing effects of the disc and of
the sharp tapering of the membrane at the outer locking ring (center); the electrostatic pressure on
the membrane-disc system is not uniform both on the disc and on the free annular membrane area
surrounding it (right).

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)

Figure 2. (a) The membrane actuation proof-of-concept inspired by the original AHD experiment
(see the text); (b) the backside of the lens and silicon deposition illuminated by laser radiation;
(c) scan of a 3 µm amorphous silicon deposition; (d) the silicon deposition backside imaged by
a microscope and Hamamatsu 1394 ORCA high speed CCD camera located outside the vacuum
chamber (not shown) while laser pulses illuminate the center of the silicon deposition (bright dot
in (e)). Newton’s rings for positioning are visible around the deposition. The grainy appearance
of the image is due in part to the texture of the silica disc and microphone steel membrane on the
opposite side of the lens.

5. Membrane actuation proof-of-concept

The central goal of our present effort, as the expected effects of radiation on the Casimir
force are accurately modeled and a logically consistent calibration procedure is completed,
is to move beyond basic measurement and to demonstrate the application of Casimir force
manipulation to nanoactuation in devices with practical technological usefulness. For this
purpose, we have implemented a proof-of-concept demonstration which leverages the many
significant instrumentation advances made since the original AHD experiment (figure 2).
The distance of the amorphous silicon deposition from the facing disc-membrane capacitive
sensor is monitored by a high speed CCD camera which can image Newton’s rings while a
piezoelectric nanoactuator provides extremely stable and reproducible positioning. Further
adjustment of the absolute position of all critical elements under vacuum is provided by
multi-axis, digitally controlled servo-motors.

J. Phys. A: Math. Theor. 41 (2008) 164033 F Pinto

1 T F1 1 T F1

M F2 M F2
2 3 2 3

Figure 3. Schematic view of a possible implementation of a thermodynamical engine enabled

by Casimir force manipulation. A rotating mirror M is held in equilibrium by the torque due to
an elastic force of constant K and that due to the Casimir force between the mirror itself and a
semiconducting plate, P (left). The intensity of the Casimir force is controlled by a radiation beam
S of suitable frequency, which is first split at T and then directed in part to the backside of the
semiconducting boundary by the fixed mirrors 1 → 2 → 3. The remainder of the beam is received
by optical fiber F1 . If the intensity of the beam is increased (right), the Casimir force also increases
and the beam is directed to fiber F2 (angular values are chosen for illustration only). This device
can act, for instance, as an optical switch, an adaptive optics element, an energy storage system, or
a Casimir force-driven oscillator.

Special care is being paid to characterizing and drastically reducing the radiation pressure
and thermal effects of photons possibly directly impinging upon the microphone membrane
[25]. In addition, we are exploring various alternative configurations of the disc-membrane
sensor, including approaches in which the Casimir force is not axially symmetric and it
excites modes of oscillation in which the dielectric disc is periodically tilted away from the
plane of the membrane. Finally, we are experimenting with sensors in which the dielectric
disc is completely absent and the Casimir force acts directly on the microphone membrane
itself. Since some of our novel geometries could only very tentatively be treated analytically,
our experiment is supported by an ongoing parallel mathematical effort to provide accurate
estimates of the Casimir force in our specific system based on numerical Green function
computation [65].

6. Nano-electro-mechanical-system applications

Since the beginning of our industrial effort, it has become increasingly clear that dispersion
force manipulation represents a viable solution to several problems of great strategic
importance in the future development of micro- and nano-technology [66]. A timely example is
that of energy conversion and storage on the nanoscale, which has recently attracted attention
because of its potential applications in bio-nanorobotics [67, 68]. Whereas those authors
suggested that the energy needed for their piezoelectric nanogenerators could be provided
by various ‘body movements’ or some other ‘mechanical vibration,’ we have proposed that
nano-devices based on engineering the quantum vacuum could very effectively convert energy
from their surrounding environment by implementing engine cycles based on the interplay
between mechanical (or electrical) energy and dispersion forces (figure 3).
In addition, since dispersion force manipulation strategies are usually focused on the
use of semiconducting boundaries, the obvious potential exists for ‘on-chip’ integration of
computing power and nano-electro-mechanical capabilities. We believe that this could lead
to the development of solar panels capable of ‘intelligent’ energy conversion, storage and
More in general, dispersion force manipulation could decisively benefit several other
areas of technology under constant market pressures to downscale their products, yet still
J. Phys. A: Math. Theor. 41 (2008) 164033 F Pinto

based on traditional approaches. For instance, electrostatic actuation is a commonly used

strategy in MEMS-based adaptive optics systems [69, 70]. In contrast, our experimental
membrane actuation demonstration could be viewed as a first practical proof-of-concept for
an adaptive optics system in which wavefront correction is achieved by light itself (figure 3).
Similarly, RF-NEMS oscillators based on the actuation of vibrating nanostructures by means
of dispersion forces might yield device densities far higher than presently possible and be ready
to meet the exponentially increasing capability demands of the mobile telecommunications

7. Conclusions

It is appropriate to stress that our industrial effort is constantly inspired by the life-long
leadership activities of Hendrik Casimir (1909–2000) at the Philips Naturkundig Laboratorium
in Eindhoven [71, 72], which he deliberately chose over the opportunity to succeed Kramers
at the Leiden Institute [73]. Although today Casimir is almost exclusively cited in the
fundamental research literature because of his seminal theoretical papers [19, 20], one cannot
fail to also be impressed by Casimir’s own forceful advocacy to protect research funding as well
as by his writings on the mutually supporting roles of academia and industry [74, 75]. There
is reason to believe that the present phase of dispersion force manipulation experimentation
will spur vigorous technology transfers according to Casimir’s ‘spiral model’ of industrial
development [75] and eventually lead to significant applications in energy, medicine, optics
and telecommunications [64, 76].


It is a pleasure to thank Professor S Hunklinger (Kirchhoff-Institut für Physik Heidelberg)

for kindly producing a digitized copy of his unpublished thesis [3]. Thanks are also due to
Professor M Bordag (Universität Leipzig) for stimulating conversations, advice, and for his
patience in allowing the present author to share the point of view of an industrial physicist.

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